Sunday, October 16, 2005

Breaking the Mould - Chapter 3

Chapter 3

Willie's Bet

We arrived at the rig shortly after midday.

The last thirty minutes or so of the trip had completely disorientated me.

We had crossed a number of rivers and been through innumerable crossroads taking apparently random choices between left, right and straight on.

The jungle was also closing in and the terrain undulating so that the previously limitless horizon was now a lot closer.

Apart from odd glimpses as we crested a rise there was
nothing on which I could fix as a reference.

I saw one or two rigs through the trees on the way in but there was no sign of our rig until right at the last moment.

Willie turned a wide sweeping bend going uphill and like a shock it suddenly appeared.

There was no travelling towards the rig from afar, it was just there.

The rig sat on a two hundred metre by two hundred metre apron of concrete enclosed by a chain link fence with a huge and foreign derrick grinding noisily away in the middle.

Willie stopped by the guard at the gate and after passing the time of day we were freed to drive onto the site.

As we drove in I noticed two rows of caravans which, Willie explained, were the offices and the accommodation.

I saw that they were caravans in all respects except that they didn't have wheels, which strictly speaking made them boxes.

The crew always liked to refer to them as caravans because talking about working and sleeping in a box was a little too close to the truth to be comfortable.

At least by calling it a caravan they maintained the illusion that it was not a box.

The caravans were lined up in two rows against the fence and Willie proudly pointed to the one on the end,

"This one we got specially for you," he said as he carried one of my bags towards it, "and that one over there is your office," pointing at another one exactly the same which had been parked about twenty metres away.

The cabin had a single bed, a desk, a wardrobe and a bathroom. I was impressed but then I thought, "I always have been easily pleased."

Willie dropped my bag inside the door and told me to come with him to meet the German Toolpusher, Werner, who was a young man with perfect English and an antiseptic smile.

Whatever he had heard about me, he didn't want it on his rig but while Señor Schmidt was there he was going to go through the motions.

The journey had taken a little longer than expected so after the briefest of introductions I was relieved when Werner suggested we get some lunch.

I was relieved because Willie had started to do the same hard sell on Werner which Duncan had done on him, except that Werner had seen it coming and sidestepped towards lunch.

Having moved away from the "Who are you?" and "Where have you been?" routine Werner got down to the nitty gritty of what concerned him.

What did I want from the crews?

Willie looked worried because this was obviously a question that he had forgotten to ask.

I asked Werner if I could talk to each of the crews for an hour before the start of their next shift, somewhere away from the noise of the rig where they could talk.

Werner pointed at the office box and I realised that instead of sharing someone else's office, this one had been brought in especially for me.

A classroom in the jungle.

I could see why Werner was edgy.

He was supposed to be running a drilling rig not a school.

Werner explained that there were four crews who worked eight-hour shifts each.

In any one day three crews would work.

Each crew worked for six days then had two days off.

I could talk to the first crew this afternoon, another this evening one in the morning and the last tomorrow afternoon, which would mean that I had seen them all in twenty-four hours.

I could see that Werner was not at all happy with the idea of stopping drilling for a meeting so I offered him a sweetener and said,"What about holding just two meetings, one at the shift change this afternoon and the other tomorrow morning, then all four crews could take part in half the time.

" Werner nearly smiled, but not quite.

Willie was staying overnight so he would be on site for the afternoon and morning meetings.

I thought that Willie and Werner could probably do with some time together before I started, I left them eating dessert and went to explore my new office.

The box was stuck on its own opposite the restaurant caravan and as far as I could see had no windows and only a single door.

Werner had given me the key to the lock but as I opened the door, the handle fell off.

This was ominous, this far away from the shops, if things broke the chances were that they would stay broken.

The handle must have been broken during the move, and had split down the middle.

I had managed to take the latch off the door before the handle came off so I went back into the restaurant box where I found a table knife.

When I poked it between the door and the frame I managed to lever the door open, took a rock from beside the chain link fence and put that in the doorway to stop the door from closing again.

I hadn't realised how strong the sun had become until I was inside the office and took my sunglasses off, having to wait several minutes while the interior faded into visibility.

After some fumbling I found the light switch but realised that I would have to wait a few minutes more as the fluorescent tube remained obstinately dark.

The container was the same size as my sleeping box.

There were two tables and half the room was taken up with white plastic garden chairs that must have been provided for the comfort of my expected pupils.

At the far end of the container was a large air conditioning unit high up in the end wall.

Turning it on I realised that the lack of a door handle no longer mattered.

At the rate at which the air conditioner was churning out icy air I would have to keep the door open to stop myself from freezing.

Feeling all round the unit I could find no way of controlling the temperature or the rate of the bone chilling blast, so it was either on or off.

A white board was set up at one end of the box with a selection of dry markers, black, blue, red and green.

I thought briefly about their journey to get here, what crimes they had committed to deserve ending up here in a box in the jungle.

There was nothing else I could do for the moment but I wanted to give Willie and Werner as much time as possible together so I headed off to my sleeping box to unpack and try the lights.

The air conditioning was the same unit as the office with the same lack of control.

By the time I had unpacked the room was beginning to feel distinctly chilly.

I had to go outside again to warm up.

Outside I was met with the sight of the new crew milling around outside the office box waiting for the crew that was coming down from the rig floor to get changed.

I noticed my rock on the ground, outside the closed door.

The rock had been placed carefully back in the same position I had left it, after the door had been shut.

Because the rock was stopping the door from closing I had left the key on my desk, inside.

I introduced myself to the crew and guessing who the driller was asked him where I could get the spare key.

He made a gesture towards the Toolpusher's office.

The gesture continued vaguely then ended up pointing to the sky.

I took that to mean, "Maybe the Toolpusher has it but I haven't the foggiest idea really"

I knew that the container had only recently been delivered so I asked if anyone had been there when it arrived.

One of the men, who it turned out was a translator/driver and therefore floated between the crews, said that he had been on site when it came and he thought that the key had been given to the Toolpusher.

That counted as an almost definite" yes" so I went to the Toolpusher's office where Willie and Werner were having a chat over coffee.

Werner had been watching my exchange with the crew, and when I explained the problem was quick to pull out a drawer full of keys.

Werner himself had not been on the rig when the container arrived but he knew that if the key was anywhere it would be in this drawer.

Fortunately most of the keys were labelled and after reading the labels I was able to discard most of them until there were only six single keys left in the drawer all without labels.

Four of the keys were obviously padlock keys and they were nowhere near the right size, but the remaining two looked hopeful.

Returning to the container around which the crowd was now growing as the other shift changed and joined them, I tried the first key but no joy.

It turned halfway then no further.

I tried the second key and it would not even go in, so I returned to the first key but now it would not turn at all.

I could feel the crew pressing in behind.

They had no idea that I had left the only key inside and were more eager than ever to get into the air conditioned container.

This was why the rock had been removed in the first place, so that it would be cold when they got in.

To most Europeans air-conditioning is a way of maintaining a comfortable temperature, and since we are not blessed with excessive heat its use is as often to heat the air as it is to cool it.

It is therefore difficult to imagine the way that the Venezuelans, who are not far removed from the equator, use air conditioning.

I witnessed a very strange thing when I had first gone to work in Venezuela several years before.

Working at a refinery in the east of the country near Puerto de La Cruz,

I arrived for my first day in a shortsleeved shirt and headed for my office in the air-conditioned office building.

When I went inside it felt like jumping into a cold shower, even after the short walk across the car park it was most invigorating.

I found my office, the coffee machine, the people I had met before, the secretaries, the photocopier, the toilets, more people, and then made a quick dash to the toilets.

On my first morning I was so busy meeting people that I barely got a chance to sit down.

It was when I was in the toilet for the third time that I realised why.

I had to keep going to the toilet, it was so cold.

This sounds ridiculous considering how close I was to the equator but I was freezing cold and actually starting to shiver.

I left the toilet and went outside for a walk in the car park to warm up.

It was as if on a cold night someone had just taken a duvet from the warm airing cupboard and wrapped it around my body.

The air in the car park was thick and warm.

It was heaven.

I walked up and down for ten minutes while I warmed up but this time when I went back inside I no longer felt refreshed, just cold.

I thought that if I, a Northern European, was feeling cold, how on earth did the Venezuelans feel?

Then I realised that while I sat in my office in shirt sleeves and froze, all the Venezuelans were wearing heavy jackets, either padded bomber type jackets or thick leather.

I later noticed that the jackets were all kept in the office.

In the morning the Venezuelans would look forward to that first refreshing rush of air conditioning then go to their offices and put on their jackets in which they would then be comfortable for the rest of the day.

I thought of the pleasure that the Scandinavians take in the excessive heat of the sauna.

Perhaps the Venezuelans were taking the same sort of pleasure from the extreme cold provided by their brutal air-conditioning in comparison to the heat of the day.

I felt a little sorry for the crews who were looking forward to their reverse sauna in the container, however I had no option but to explain to them what had happened.

The crews helped me to one side and crowded round the door to offer their solutions.

Werner stood next to me, and I could see that he was thinking hard while he watched what the crews were doing.

They were concentrating on the lock and had inserted a blade between the door and the frame, applying all sorts of forces to the blade without result.

I was sure that something was going to give suddenly and had visions of the broken blade sticking into someone's arm.

As I stepped forward to call a halt Werner put his hand on my shoulder and went forward himself to take control of the group around the door.

He pointed at the hinges and as the serious faces turned to smiles, two men ran off.

They went to a container next to the workshop and in less than a minute were back with a large hammer, a spike and a long screwdriver.

The hinges didn't stand a chance.

When the last one gave up the unequal fight the door stood drunkenly open.

I was the last inside and found the crews fighting for the seats nearest the valuable air conditioner.

Willie, Werner explained, would not be joining us.

He had said that he felt that his presence might either intimidate or inhibit the crew.

I appreciated Willie's insight but had been hoping that he would be there as I knew that he had started to trust me, but I still had not shown him the detail of what I was going to do with the crews or how I was going to do it.

This would have been a good time.

I opened the meeting by telling the crews why I was there.

As I feel that it is very important at this stage not to baffle people with concepts or jargon I told them I was here to implement the Continuous Improvement Process.

The Continuous Improvement Process is basically a method of capturing improvements every time a job is carried out.

Each time a task is finished the crew get together and discuss what went well and what they could improve.

These ideas are then captured and used to improve the performance next time.

The words translated well enough but in common with most people these guys had no idea what this meant in practical terms.

How could you improve all the time?

When would it stop?

How much extra work will it cause me?

These crews had never seen or heard of performance coaches so at least I did not have to worry about any negative preconceptions.

All I had to think about was how to let them understand enough about what was going to happen for them to take part.

At this point in a European project I would use a very simple story and explain the concept of Continuous Improvement.

When we buy our first car we usually spend all the money that we can afford and the result, although perfect in our eyes, is normally less than mechanically sound.

Shortly after we drive home the exhaust falls off and we don't have much option other than to buy a new one and, with no spare cash, we fit it ourselves.

The first time we attempt the job it takes all day, we lose most of the skin from our knuckles and the exhaust may or may not be gas tight when we have finished.

The next time the exhaust blows it will only take half a day to change it, we don't lose any skin from our knuckles and there is a good chance that the exhaust will work when we have finished.

Without thinking about it we have learned which tools we need, how to use them and how the exhaust is supposed to be fitted.

We have not learned all of the available lessons but we have captured a good deal in a natural process called gaining experience.

We all do this all of the time.

One of the most valuable parts of gaining experience is that we have learned what not to do.

The easiest way to improve is simply to identify what is not helping, then stop doing it.

If we have lost the skin from our knuckles because the first time around the spanner slipped, next time we will definitely have the right size spanner, not only for this job but for any other job too.

That is the process of Continuous Improvement.

In life it is called gaining experience and is an individual thing. In the work place however we are not dealing with one person performing one task.

The next time the same task is performed it is highly likely that it will be performed by someone else.

That person then has to make the same mistakes again in order that their own personal experience may grow.

For everybody's experience level to grow they all have to make the same mistake.

If when we make the mistake the first time everybody learns how to stop it happening again, that is clearly an improvement.

In this way when one member of the workforce learns something, every other person can make use of that same lesson.

I had been on a rig in the northern North Sea which would drill a well every couple of months then skid the rig with hydraulic jacks over to a new well.

For practical mechanical reasons the wellheads are all separate at the surface.

When drilling, the drill and the drill pipe go through the wellhead
into the well.

To start work on a new well the whole rig must be physically moved until it is vertically above the new wellhead.

There were four crews on this rig and every time it was skidded the crews would come together and talk through the operation they had just completed.

They would identify things they could do better next time
or things they didn't want to do next time.

At each skid they would collect their ideas and record them.

As they would then use those ideas the next time they skidded the rig to tell the crew what had been learned from previous skids, the next skid would be better.

That was Continuous Improvement.

Having been on the rig for nearly a year I was winding down my
involvement in the project and handing my position to a crewman who had been trained to take over.

One of the last operations was to skid the rig to a new well.

The assistant driller who was due to make the skid was worried and revealed that, through chance, it was actually two years since his crew had skidded the rig.

They had a procedure but that didn't tell them "how" to skid the rig. I took the whole crew through all of the lessons that had been learned in the past year by the other crews.

In effect they were given all the experience that the other three crews had gained from all the past skids.

There were a few questions of clarification and discussion but the crew left the meeting and skidded the rig perfectly.

At the debriefing session they returned with lessons of their own.

Their biggest lesson was the value they had found through making use of the knowledge which had been gathered by the other crews.

For the Venezuelans I knew that the broken exhaust analogy wouldn't work.

When a Venezuelan buys a car, if it has an exhaust he will want to know why it is not making as much noise as his neighbours' car.

He will most likely not buy the car until the seller has put a hole in the exhaust to make it sound normal.

It does not say much for Venezuelan motoring but I knew it was true.

I had to look for a way to get the crews to understand what was happening without patronising them.

The best way of doing that, I thought, was to stop talking about it and start doing it.

Instead of making them listen in an increasing temperature in a box in the middle of the jungle, I asked the crews to start talking.

I asked them to tell me which one of all the operations that they carried out was the one that they disliked the most.

Almost unanimously they agreed that it was skidding the rig.

On this site in the jungle it involved attaching large hydraulic jacks and pulling the whole rig from one wellhead to the next.

The wells were fifteen metres apart and there were two dozen wellheads in two lines down one side of the concrete apron.

I wanted to start collecting the crew's ideas so I got my dry marker and wrote Delizando (skidding) at the top of the dry board.

It didn't make a mark.

I tried a different colour and still nothing.

Another marker marked my finger but still wouldn't work on the board.

When I felt the surface of the white board, it was wet.

The air conditioner was pouring cold dry air in at one end of the container and I was by the open door at the other end, right where the cold dry air met the warm wet air outside.

I was standing with the board in a little cloud all of my own.

Lesson number one, a dry marker will not work on a wet board.

I couldn't close the door because there was no window, and the only light was coming from the open door.

Werner came to the rescue again and suggested that we position the board at the other end of the container, thecold end, and the crew would have to come and sit in the cloud end.

This sounded like a good plan but the container was too crowded to move the wet dry board up to the other end.

The crew were beginning to enjoy this so as soon as they saw the problem they all jumped up with their chairs and went outside into the sun while I picked up the board and went to the cold end of the container.

Then they all filed back in again and sat down facing the other way.

The board had dried by the time everybody was back and I asked again which was the operation that they disliked the most.

This time they shouted back together "Delizando", and I wrote Delizando at the top of the board.

Next I asked them to tell me what they did that made them dislike the job.

At first it was mostly directed against the European supervisors.

"They shout at us all the time",

"They don't give us any respect",

"They are swearing at us all the time",

"They are putting pressure on us which causes mistakes and makes more delays".

All these general gripes were acknowledged and written down, then I found myself writing more and more task specific points.

"It takes a long time to get the generator if we have to do any welding."

"When the tractor goes away to pull the hydraulic unit we have to stop skidding because we need the tractor to lay the skid plates."

"We have to wait while the logging unit disconnect their remote sensors from the rig."

The ideas were coming thick and fast and I was running out of room to write them.

Werner found another whiteboard and gave me that.

I was writing smaller and smaller but there was no let up, and I had to call a halt when I reached the bottom of the second column on the second board.

I explained to the crews that it was three days before they were going to skid the rig again.

I would write out all the suggestions from these crews and add all of those from the other two crews and, before the next skidding operation, I would help the crews work out how they could incorporate them into the next plan.

If the crews were happy I would take fifteen minutes of their time before each shift and work out as many ideas as possible.

When they skidded next time each crew could use the ideas
from all of the crews. Did that sound like a deal?

"Thanks for your time, I'll see you tomorrow," I said, and they wandered back out into the sun, some to get changed for work and the others to get on the bus for the three hour trip back to El Tigre.

While I sat on in the gloom the crews left and Werner came back in.

I could see his head cocked slightly to one side and that he was thinking, "I could have done that."

I waited and eventually Werner asked, "So that's it, you just ask them how to do their job then tell them to go and do it."

In a nutshell, I had to admit that was what I did.

There was however one small exception that would make the difference between the crew changing the way they worked, or continuing to work the same way they always had.

Nobody was going to tell them to do anything.

The crews would decide what changes they wanted to make, and then they would implement those changes themselves.

This could have been a bit strong for some Toolpushers who might fear losing control but I knew from Willie that Werner was under a lot of pressure to make the rig pay.

I was counting on him understanding that the more the crew could do for themselves the less strain it would be on him.

This would allow him more time for the business of running the rig, instead of running the crew.

I had gambled with Werner on what he saw as control.

For many managers "control" is the ability to tell people what to do.

Telling people what to do does not necessarily achieve anything but for these people relinquishing control is frightening because they have no idea of how else to spend their day.

My observation of Werner was that telling people what to do was something he would rather not be doing, he just did not know another way to get people to do what he wanted.

Werner was open enough to welcome my suggestion in a situation where other individuals may have seen it as undermining their authority and resisted vigorously.

I could see that it made sense to him but Werner had still not known me for more than six hours and was understandably cautious.

"OK," Werner said, "and we will only do this for the skidding operation and you let me know how you are progressing.

" I smiled a little to myself and said, "Of course Werner, you will always know what is going on."

As he walked back outside into the light I saw him bend down to pick something up outside the door.

He brought it into the container and put it on the desk. It was a coffee percolator.

He said with a straight face, "If you are going to stay then you will probably need one of these."

"There's coffee and filter papers in the galley and they will give you a bottle of water too, don't use the stuff out of the taps it'll kill you.
I'll be back for a cup when I've got the rig started again".

Werner left the container and I set about producing the coffee.

I collected everything I needed from the galley and switched the coffee machine on.

I had just plugged in the laptop when there was a knock on the door.

I was going to say come in but a loud bang and a flood of light
suggested that the door had had enough of being propped up and had fallen over.

I got up and went to the door.

Shading my eyes against the brightness of the sun I could see a young Indian boy standing looking at the fallen door absolutely horrified.

He looked at me worriedly then back at the door, but I couldn't laugh.

Instead with a serious face I showed the boy the hinges and the lock and explained the story about the key.

The boy finally relaxed when he realised that he was not going to be blamed for breaking the door and he told me why he was there.

He said with great pride, "I am Eduardo, assistant to the electrician."

Señor Werner had told him to come and change the light so he had brought a filament bulb.

I was trying to explain to him the difference between a fluorescent strip and a normal bulb when Willie came in looking as if he was ready to steal Werner's inaugural cup of coffee.

I wrote a note for Eduardo to take to the electrician and sent him off saying that the electrician would tell him about the different bulbs.

I poured the coffee for Willie hoping that Werner wouldn't be too upset to be missing the first cup, and gave him my impressions of the crew and how the first session had gone.

Eventually Willie had to ask again, what was I going to do?

I asked him how long it had taken to skid the rig last time.

He had been on site when they skidded two days ago, and said with some pride that it had taken six and a half hours, which was the fastest they had ever done it.

Having listened to the first two crews' ideas I was prepared to take a gamble based on my belief in the power of ordinary people, and told Willie that I was going to be on site for the next three weeks.

I said, "At the end of those three weeks the crew will skid the rig in one hour.

That is what I will do for you".

"Absolute rubbish," said Willie.

He had been on site for the last skid, watching everybody running round like crazy, had seen the Toolpusher shouting and tearing his hair out, and had seen the crew working flat out.

There was no way.

The more Willie talked the more I knew it was a sure thing.

I said, "Willie, I bet you one beer. One beer says that the rig will skid in one hour before I go home."

He protested but I refused to be drawn into a discussion about the impossibility of the bet.

Take it or leave it.

Eventually I wore Willie down and we shook hands.

The bet was on.

I have always disliked the idea of selling.

I have never consciously done it and always automatically resisted when it was done to me.

This was my individual reaction to being told what to do by a salesman but I recognise that many other people have exactly the same reaction.

I liken this reaction to walking around a second hand car lot.

You see the right car in the right colour at the right price and decide to buy it.

After you have made your decision a salesman comes and starts to try and sell it to you.

You will refuse to buy it on the grounds that if the salesman
wants to sell it so badly there must be something wrong with it.

My answer when using the Breaking the Mould process, to avoid this defensive reaction, was not to sell at all.

Instead like any shop I prefer to set out my wares and allow my customers to make their own minds up.

Using this approach with the crews avoided building resistance to change.

I had not sold them the idea of Breaking the Mould, but instead I showed the crews how it worked and allowed them to make their own decisions.

I have a lot of faith in people when they were allowed to make up their own minds.

This was the first time I had ever made a bet on it.

Peter A Hunter

and at


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